Los Angeles FC entered the 2020 Major League Soccer season widely regarded as the best team in the league, and now Bob Bradley’s squad will have a chance to show that is the case when it takes on what is arguably the toughest group at the upcoming MLS is Back Tournament.
Facing off against the LA Galaxy in the first installment of their rivalry to be played outside Southern California will generate plenty of headlines, but LAFC’s derby showdown shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the LA teams are in a strong Group F that won’t be easy to advance from.
The Portland Timbers are a perennial playoff team that reached the MLS Cup Final in 2018, and pushed the Seattle Sounders to the brink in last year’s playoffs before falling to the eventual MLS Cup champions. The Houston Dynamo are the group’s underdog, but new head coach Tab Ramos has arrived with high expectations after taking over an underachieving team with some dangerous attacking weapons.
LAFC is the headliner though, and is the favorite to win the entire tournament, not just the group. The battle will be for second place, where the Galaxy, Timbers and Dynamo all boast elite attacking threats, but lack the defensive quality to be considered title contenders.
The Galaxy’s defense was its weak link in 2019, but their early-season struggles centered around an attack still adjusting to the change from featuring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to having Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez leading the attack. Chicharito’s first two MLS matches were underwhelming, but the MLS is Back Tournament will give Guillermo Barros Schelotto an opportunity to help the Mexican star establish a rhythm with his new teammates.
The Dynamo and Galaxy actually began the season with a 1-1 draw in Houston, a match that left both teams with something to build on. Neither were able to though, with the Galaxy falling flat in a home loss to Vancouver and the Dynamo suffering a humbling 4-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers split their first two matches of the season, a home loss to Minnesota United followed by a narrow win against expansion side Nashville SC. Giovanni Savarese’s side revamped its defense in the offseason, with Dario Zuparic brought in to help solidify a back-line that was inconsistent more than terrible.
The Dynamo’s defense was one of the worst in MLS in 2019, but Ramos has begun the season with a back-line made up of players who were part of the team last season. Newcomer Marko Maric has stepped into goal, but one of Ramos’ biggest challenges will be to tighten up the defense despite a lack of clear personnel upgrades.
The challenge in Group F will be to see which team can find defensive consistency in a group featuring several top attacking threats, from MLS MVP Carlos Vela, to Chicharito, to Diego Valeri and Alberth Elis.
LAFC also heads into the tournament with some questions about its defense, specifically how it finally adapts to the departure of Walker Zimmerman, who was traded before the season. Tristan Blackmon is an option to slide into a centerback partnership with Eddie Segura, a move that will be made easier by the arrival of Andy Najar, who is set to join LAFC this summer.
Of course, Bob Bradley’s team doesn’t have to be a defensive juggernaut to win the tournament, not with the highest-scoring attack in the league, and the best player in MLS in Vela. LAFC will head to Orlando expected to win, and expected to separate the contenders from pretenders in a strong group.